New Utah law blocks vaccine passports if you’re on a college campus or at a state government building

Private businesses are free to require vaccinations.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Jonathan Pimble, AEMT, administers a Covid-19 vaccination to Jerome Little, during a resource fair on Rio Grande Street, on Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

If a private company in Utah wants to use a so-called vaccine passport to determine which customers have been inoculated against the coronavirus, there’s nothing stopping them.

But a newly passed law blocks state government from requiring people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

On the final day of the 2021 Legislature, a bill blocking the state government from requiring Utahns to get the COVID vaccine won final passage. HB308 was signed 11 days later by Gov. Spencer Cox.

Vaccine passports, when deployed, will assist those who have been inoculated to attend sporting events, travel, shop or dine in restaurants more freely as their risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19 has been greatly diminished. Many of the passports that are under development will be a smartphone app with a code that will verify whether someone has been vaccinated or possibly tested negative for the virus.

The Washington Post reported that at least 17 companies are working to develop the passports. Sporting venues in New York will begin using a digital pass this week. Las Vegas casinos are also determining how to deploy the passports for use by guests.

Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy and sponsor of HB308, says now that vaccines are more widely available to the public, he doesn’t see the need for vaccine passports, but he won’t try to push restrictions on their use for private businesses.

“If we’re talking pure policy, I don’t think we should have vaccine passports or mask mandates now that people are being protected against the virus,” Spendlove said. “But I wanted to make sure we were very careful about using the power of the government in this case.”

Spendlove’s bill, which passed with near-unanimous approval from lawmakers, also blocks state colleges and universities from requiring COVID vaccinations for students and employees. In practical terms, the University of Utah, Utah State University and other public institutions cannot use vaccine passports, but Brigham Young University, which is private, can.

The ban also applies to public school and college sporting events, where vaccine verification is becoming increasingly in vogue. The NBA’s Miami Heat is offering “vaccine verified” seating in a prime section of the arena for fans who can show proof they’ve been vaccinated. Those fans must still wear masks, however. And MLB’s New York Mets announced last week that fans attending a game at Citi Field must show proof they’re fully vaccinated or have had a negative COVID test within 72 hours.

Theoretically, vaccines could be mandated for fans attending Utah Jazz basketball games, but not for U. games. The Utah Jazz said Monday that it would require masks for fans at games once the statewide mask mandate is lifted April 10 but has not said anything about requiring vaccinations.

Spendlove says the inclusion of public universities in his bill was intentional.

“That’s a concern I shared with a lot of people in the Legislature. We didn’t want to use the power of the government to compel people to do something. I’m not anti-vaccination and am encouraging everyone to get the vaccine. But I don’t want the government telling someone they have to.”

Proof of vaccination has come under fire by some on the political right in recent weeks. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis banned state and local governments and private businesses from requiring proof of vaccination.

Don’t expect Cox to follow DeSantis’ lead. A spokesperson tells The Salt Lake Tribune that the governor agrees with Sen. Mike Lee’s stance on the issue. Last week, Lee told The Tribune he was not opposed to private businesses requiring proof of vaccination but did not think that was a step the government should take.

“Gov. Cox believes Sen. Lee’s stance makes sense,” said the spokesperson in a text message.

Spendlove emphasized his bill was written specifically to apply only to the coronavirus vaccine.